But Where’s the Woo-Woo?

“Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books; / Or surely you’ll grow double,” said the early-Nineteenth Century British poet William Wordsworth: “Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife.” He continues,

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

Ah, yes. Romanticism. They headed for the woods for their woo-woo.

And Romanticism hit US shores in Transcendentalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson asked, “why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe?” Experience. It was all about experience. Emerson began his great Transcendentalist manifesto, Nature, this way:

“Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?”

Whatever else this tradition accomplished, it convinced New England Unitarians that books were fine and necessary on Sunday morning, but mystical experience, the woo-woo of worship, would happen elsewhere. On that hike through the mountains perhaps. Or on the seashore. Only accidentally within the walls of a church.

Emerson’s children hold onto this tradition, remaining mistrustful of the technologies of woo-woo: rhythmic music; glossolalia; shouting and such. Yet, if we take up those leaves called the Norton Anthology of American Literature, we find that there have been a few literary and intellectual movements since Transcendentalism. Perhaps it’s time to move on and, as sage old Emerson said, “demand our own works and laws and worship.”


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